Joao Teixeira de Faria appears on the stage, hauling a man by the hand. His demeanour is that of a big cat who has bagged his prey, and, like a cat, he induces a hypnotised trance in the fearful face of the volunteer. Without further ado, and without a whiff of orthodox anaesthetic or sterilisation, Joao scrapes one of the man's eyeballs with a knife. Then he produces a pair of medical tweezers and shoves them up the man's nostril. A small stream of blood runs out.
The audience leans forward to catch every moment of this public performance given to convince the sceptical of Joao's healing powers, most of which operate invisibly. A hypnotic cloud enfolds us as we watch the tweezers being twisted and pushed, as though they are reaching deep inside the man and fixing what's wrong. Joao pulls out the tweezers, the blades of which are clamped around a bloodstained swab. He displays it to the crowd as a magician might display a rabbit he had pulled out of a top hat, and drops it into the basin held out by an acolyte. The still hypnotised volunteer is manoeuvred into a chair and carried to the recovery room. Joao disappears to begin the real work of the day.
It is 8 a.m. and already very hot. Abadiania, the small hilltop village in central Brazil where Joao works every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, has been awake for several hours, to make the most of the morning before scorching heat leaches the body of energy. Casa de Dom Inacio (the House of St Ignatius Loyola), where Joao has held court since 1978, is full of people, many of whom have travelled for days to see him. We all wear white, as he says this makes his work easier.
Describing that work isn't easy. People who knew I was making the trip from Ireland warned me that I was joining a cult. When I arrive, however, it is easy to see that this place does not qualify. Joao does not seem to have a personality of his own that would get the sort of power fix an ego-driven cult leader needs.
Joao (Portuguese for John, pronounced to rhyme with wow) is a medium. The son of a tailor, he has had only two years of formal education, but his psychic powers mean that he can channel the medical expertise of 33 deceased doctors, surgeons, dentists and other spirit guides (including King Solomon, St Ignatius Loyola and Oswaldo Cruz - a doctor who eradicated yellow fever in Brazil). When I visit, the casa is quiet because a recent economic crisis has led to a shortage of extra cash for Brazilians to make pilgrimages of this kind. There is no charge to see Joao, and only a nominal charge for the herbal medicines he prescribes (devised by his spirit guides and made on the premises), but the cost of travelling and accommodation, given the enormous size of Brazil, can be prohibitive for poor people.
Nevertheless, during each of the two daily sessions, he sees more than 500 people in three hours. A young man in a wheelchair has travelled from Australia in the hope of finding a cure for the muscular dystrophy which has left him bone thin and fragile. A woman from South Africa has a tumour in her heart. An Englishman in a wheelchair because of a bad fall during a trip on LSD. A wasted Brazilian woman, who can't be more than 20, leaning on a stick. A white woman carrying a child with cerebral palsy. An older couple guiding a mentally handicapped girl. A black man with a huge growth on his neck. These people, many of whom have tried all other possible remedies, are hoping that Joao will cure them, or at least give them the answers which they have not found anywhere else.
First-time visitors get in line to see Joao (or "the Entity" as he is known when he does his channeling work). It is a humbling experience, waiting, alternately swayed by the eddying emotions of the people surging around, some of whom are weeping; and soothed by the prayers which are uttered in Portuguese by Joao's helpers - other mediums and people he has cured who assist him at the casa.
One of the latter is a Brazilian called Sirlei who came here five years ago, her abdomen and lungs riddled with inoperable cancer. Now no cancer remains except for a tumour in one of her breasts. Sirlei's journey towards health has been a long one. People are more interested in stories of instant cures. These are swapped back and forth during the long periods of waiting which attending the casa involves. The story of the man with AIDS whom Joao cured, but who didn't believe he was well again. Joao is said to have filled a syringe full of the man's blood and injected it into himself, saying "Now, if you die, I die." The American with motor neurone disease who threw away his crutches after one visit to Joao.
The paraplegic, Raul Natal, who was able to walk after being immobile for 50 years. The casa's archives bulge with miles of video footage and testimonies of people who have been cured. They include Shirley MacLaine, who came here in 1991 and was operated on invisibly for cancer of the stomach. Her progress was observed and confirmed by other doctors. Another testimonial is from the son of an employee of the Brazilian Ministry of Health. The young man had a brain tumour four centimetres wide and was told by medical experts in the US that that if he had an operation his chances of survival were 50 per cent. He went to Joao, and after three days an X-ray confirmed that the tumour was gone.
Martin Mosquera, the Argentinian in whose guest house I am staying, has witnessed two cures. Six years ago, when he was a medical student, he brought his mother to Joao because she was suffering with a painful hernia. "He did an invisible operation, and there was no more pain," says Martin, who ended his medical studies and came to live in Abadiania. His new wife, Fernanda, was cured of cancer of the colon.
The casa has two "current" rooms, where visitors are invited to pray and meditate. You must keep your eyes closed, and your legs and arms uncrossed, to allow the healing current to flow more easily. An invisible operation could occur at any time or place. An Irishman, here to video the progress of two friends in wheelchairs, collapses with his camcorder in his hand and is brought to the recovery room, where he is told he has had an operation.
In the second current room Joao sits "in Entity", big and inscrutable. He takes one look at me, says something in Portuguese, and scribbles on a piece of paper. My visit has taken all of 20 seconds, yet I feel as though his large eyes have read me inside out. The scribbles mean I'm due for an invisible operation and a course of herbal medicine. The operation takes about 10 minutes and is painless. I sit with other people in a quiet room, eyes closed. I am told to cradle the painful part of my body with my hand (in my case, my belly). A numb, sleepy feeling comes over me and I feel little twists and movements going on inside: invisible scalpels at work, or simply my imagination?
I recall a cautionary tale - told by Liam, a stroke victim from Dublin here for the fourth time, recovering in spite of Irish doctors telling him his mobility would not improve - of a hard chaw who did not believe in his invisible operation. "The man left Abadiania right away and went on the tear all night in Brasilia (the nearest city). He was found dead the next day. When they did an autopsy, they found ruptured stitches inside." Those who have had operations are advised to take it easy. Alcohol and sex are forbidden for 40 days. Hard to say whether I can really believe I've got actual stitches inside after what seemed like a short period of meditation. But I'm not going to risk going on a boozing binge in Brasilia. I feel tired and dizzy for the rest of the day, with a growing rawness in the area where I have had a duodenal ulcer, and which still becomes inflamed with pain when I am stressed. Perhaps this is where the operation has taken place.
I compare notes with Kevin, a Dublin man here for the second time because of his MS. He feels sleepy, as though emerging from an anaesthetic. He is sure that some work has been done on his head, but what it may be he has no idea. Later Kevin bravely asks Joao if he will walk again. He is happy to hear that he will, but only after he does a lot of spiritual healing work on himself. The unexpected rather than the miracle cure seems to be the order of the day. Sarah, a Danish woman who has had lupus for 15 years, is on her second visit with her husband Chris. She is still battling with her illness, although Joao has told her she will be cured after three visits. During her first visit, Chris, who has arthritis in his hands, woke up one night to find that for the first time in years he could bend and flex his fingers.
Dayalan, a South African Indian, has two tumours that cause him horrific pain (he takes morphine every three hours). Apart from two days here when he was pain free, he has been offered no other good news; instead the Entity urged him to go on a course of chemotherapy on his return. "I've just had 10 months of chemo. I don't know if I can face any more," he says wearily.
By contrast, Beverly, also from South Africa, happened to ask Joao casually about an old whiplash injury that was causing her headaches. She was not prepared for what happened next: "He told me to kneel down, and close my eyes. I felt a sharp pain in my right breast. He told me he was going to take out something that would turn into cancer later on. Then he sewed me up and I was taken to the recovery room." An hour after her unexpected operation Beverly feels no pain and is walking around, chatting and displaying her wound with pride. "You've had a boob job," jokes one of her friends. A week later, Beverly's scar is virtually healed. For others at the casa with advanced cancers it must be hard to watch someone like Beverly have a potential problem whipped out so easily.
Joao is unhappy about being seen as "The Miracle Man", the title of a book written about him by an Australian, Robert Pellegrino-Estrich, whose asthma Joao cured. It compares Joao to "a modern Christ" and includes dramatic tales of cures, such as that of the man whom Joao brought back to life after he died from cardiac arrest. The man had been clinically dead for half an hour in a hospital in Sao Paulo, 1200 km from Abadiania, when his wife phoned Joao, who was "in Entity" at the time. After the phone call, when he was being taken to the morgue, the man revived.
Such tales can raise hopes too high. It should be obvious to anyone visiting the casa in Abadiania that most people who come here have only begun a journey that may or may not lead them where they want to go. For every story of a dramatic cure there are countless disappointments, including the story of the young Irishwoman who came here recently because of her cancer and died two weeks after her return. Her death was painless, but there was no cure.
The casa is run by well-meaning volunteers, but can seem worryingly chaotic, especially for someone who can't speak Portuguese and must depend on a translator. Those in the know claim Joao is looking after everything and will know when something is wrong. Sure enough, Joao stops by at our guest house to pass on a message. He has noticed one of us out sunbathing in a bikini top, and wishes to remind us that strong sun is harmful for us white-skinned Irish, and Abadiania is a place of healing, not a resort. "He is a powerful person who can be very stern," says Sirlei. Just before we arrived, he told a German girl to break off her relationship with her boyfriend. She duly made the call.
Joao the man is not immune to bad living habits himself (he smokes, claiming it helps him to relax) or ill-health. After a stroke in 1988, he was left paralysed. Joao became the Entity, during which time his limbs functioned normally, and healed himself. Joao and the Entity are not divided as cleanly as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, however. Even when not in Entity Joao has special, psychic powers. Three years ago he foresaw the tragic death of his nephew in a flying accident. Although he warned the young man several times not to make the journey, his advice was ignored and his nephew died.
Interviewing Joao is a frustrating business. After queuing for hours on several occasions to catch him off duty, I am finally allowed to see him, but he answers my questions briefly, simplistically. How does he manage to have a personal life and spend time with his six children? "God is my father and takes care of my family." The question of who will continue the healing work after him is similarly "in God's hands". In spite of the obviously Catholic overlay at the casa, he emphasises that "because I am a Christian, this is important to me, but no one is excluded here. Everyone is God's son."
I have seen him looking grey and haggard after long sessions with the sick (Sirlei says he sometimes takes on some of the symptoms of the people he has healed.) He will spend the coming weekend in a large town where he will see up to 25,000 people. How does he conserve his energy? He insists that he feels well, has been working as a healer for 41 years, and has no sense of his limits. He does not know why God has chosen him for this work, but when he is in Entity, Joao, the man, feels as though he is asleep, and so he does get enough rest. He still has to deal with the suspicion of many in the Brazilian medical profession. "They don't accept me. I treat the spirit and the body, whereas they only treat the body." He has been thrown in jail and pursued by the police on several occasions, because in spite of his good work, he is technically breaking Brazilian law (being involved in "the illegal exercise of medicine and healing").
The same people who have tried to put him in jail have also consulted him about their health. They include Commissioner Firto Franki, a police prosecutor, who came to see Joao in 1996 for a cure, having spent the previous 10 years trying to convict him. Whatever it is Joao has, it is powerful and palpable. In the casa an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity pervades. At 11 o'clock every morning a bowl of stodgy vegetable soup is distributed free to everyone who wants it, and that plain dish tastes like manna from heaven. "It's soul food," says Kevin. "I've tried everything, and this is the best so far," says Eileen, an octogenarian from Dorset with osteoporosis in her spine. "I was told I was too old to come here, but it's magic."
Although I saw no miracles and have yet to comprehend what my own "operation" involved, this analytical agnostic has to confess that her visit to Joao has had a profoundly positive effect, on every level. Magic? Who cares?
The Casa de Dom Inacio is at Avenida Frontal s/n 72940-000, Abadiania, Goias, Brasil. Tel: 005562-3431254.